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Travel: Slope off to French ‘balcony of the Alps’

© Press Association ImagesThe snowy vista of Les  Arcs
The snowy vista of Les Arcs

You may think a week spent endlessly careering down slopes, followed by obligatory apres-ski and a gooey raclette, more than enough to satisfy your winter holiday needs.

Particularly in the second biggest ski area in the world – France’s Les Arcs and La Plagne, with some 280 miles of slopes between them.

But resorts are stepping up their game. With an increasing number of non-skiers holidaying in the Alps, Les Arcs in particular has seen four times’ more pedestrians taking the cable car up from the resorts than two years ago. It proves enjoying winter mountain culture is not only the preserve of skiers and snowboarders.

The views, unsurprisingly, are one draw. “It’s known as ‘the balcony of the Alps’,” says Cecile, our guide for the day, “because there are so many panoramic views”. At the top of the longest slope in Europe – a four-mile winding red run in Les Arcs – she points out Italy and Switzerland across the sea of mountaintops.

Instead of the classic dotting of chalets, French architect Charlotte Perriand designed Les Arcs in the late ’60s “with bigger buildings, so people would see more of the mountains rather than lots of chalets”, explains Cecile.

The multi-altitude offering is unique, too: there are five different resorts at five different elevations – from Arc 1600 to Arc 2000. The latter area is home to the area’s only five-star offering, Taj-I Mah Hotel, which makes full use of the snowy slope views from the dining room and the swimming pool – as well as my room with its plush, textured walls and luxe cabin vibes.

The beautiful Taj-I Mah hotel

With a lot of competition for our cash, resorts are offering more than they used to. And so enters a growing array of alternative adrenalin sports for skiers and non-skiers alike.

A newly-opened zipline hangs directly above a speed skating slope (known as the extremely steep ‘flying kilometre’), where Simone Origone set the world record of 156mph in 2006. While you won’t reach Origone’s top speeds, it does claim to boast heart-in-mouth speeds of “up to 80mph”. Its starting point is 2,680m at the top of the Varet telecabin, where I park my skis and step into a harness, ready to be flung 1,800 metres down the mountain.

For real adrenaline junkies, there’s an option to go horizontal and head first, but I opt for seated (the views are more enjoyable apparently) and after being clipped in and a quick “un, deux, trois” the drop is steep, stomach-rising and exhilarating.

It’s a wonderful, if quick, way to see the mountains in all their glory, the village of Arc 2000 hurtling closer towards me at such a speed, I wonder if I’ll slow down in time at the bottom. It’s a softer snap back to earth than it looks, thankfully.

A favourite discipline in the Winter Olympics, it’s possible to hurtle down a professional bobsleigh track as a novice. La Plagne is home to France’s only bobsleigh and skeleton track, nestled into the mountainside at 1,800 metres.

Writer Lauren Taylor takes to the slopes

At the 1992 Winter Olympics, the world’s best descended on this small alpine village to compete on this track, and the Danish national team still trains here.

There are three options to suit your adrenalin needs: the “bob raft”, slightly wider than Olympic bobsleighs with plenty of padding, for three or four people, reaching speeds of 50 mph; the “speed luge”, for individuals lying down, feet-first, with top speeds of 55 mph; and finally the fastest, and closest to pro-competition experience you’ll ever get, is “bob racing” – a driver sits in the front with three passengers behind and speeds of up to 74 miles an hour.

As first timers, my fellow travellers and I opt for the bob raft, which I wrongly assumed would feel tame as I pop on a helmet and excitedly hop inside.

The clock above counts down and we’re given a push down the slope, quickly picking up speed. Bend after bend, it gets faster as the raft bounces off the sides and the G-force builds, until we pull into the finish line.

For those who haven’t had enough of an adrenalin fix by day, Oxygene in La Plagne also offers exhilarating moonbiking by night.


P.S. Breathtaking panoramas can be enjoyed from the double-decker Vanoise Express, claiming to be the biggest cable car in the world, connecting Les Arcs to La Plagne – known collectively as the Paradiski area (paradiski.com).


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